Those who know Donizetti best through his baleful tragic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor may be surprised by the frothiness of Daughter, which premièred in Paris in 1840, with a libretto in French. This sentimental fairy tale begins with an ominous chorus, as Tyrolean villagers anxiously pray while they await attack by Napoleonic soldiers. With this one nod to the somber side of life out of the way, it's announced that the enemy has withdrawn, and the villagers start frolicking happily. Shortly thereafter, the "enemy" soldiers arrive, and they, too, start singing merrily.
The reason for the cheerfulness of this particular regiment, the Twenty-First Grenadiers, is the "daughter," Marie by name, a battlefield foundling raised by the soldiers, all of whom she regards as her fathers. Grown up now, she pulls her weight as the "Vivandiere," bucking up her adoring comrades' spirits with songs and playfulness. Our Heroine confesses to the extra-fatherly Sergeant Sulpice that she has fallen in love with a young civilian named Tonio, who rescued her when she fell off a cliff picking flowers, but Sulpice insists that she may only marry a member of the 21st. Just about that time, Tonio is brought in as a prisoner of war, suspected of espionage, by the other soldiers. He's freed as soon as the men learn of the rescue, and he enlists in the 21st to make himself eligible for Marie's hand. Just then Marie learns from the Marquise de Berkenfeld that she is actually of noble birth, and must leave the regiment to take up an aristocratic life and marriage.
Further complications ensue, but not many -- The Daughter of the Regiment is about as short as full-length operas get. The second act, which unfolds in the chateau in which the now poor-little-rich-girl Marie is being none-too-successfully browbeaten into blue-blood mode, runs only about half an hour.
There's nothing very wrong with Arizona Opera's production, performed in a colorful setting borrowed from Edmonton Opera that has a deliberately artificial, Maurice Sendak-ish look. Although too much of the action takes place on a raised platform upstage that keeps the performers farther from the audience than they need to be, the staging is otherwise proficient. But the work itself is slight to the point of insipidity. The featherweight feel is almost akin to Gilbert and Sullivan, but without the undertone of satirical social wit.
The singing is topnotch, however. While the male roles are slim, Matthew Lau is winning as Sulpice, and John Osborn (who played Tonio on February 23; he alternates in the role with Benjamin Brecher) handles "Pour me rapprocher de Marie," his brief love aria, superbly. But it's not hard to see why Daughter survives in the repertory -- the role of Marie is irresistible soprano-bait. The show is really a vehicle for the title character, and Tracy Dahl (who alternates with Lynette Tapia) had the audience as entranced as the soldiers by her vocal gymnastics on Donizetti's bel canto ornamentation, and also by her comic perkiness. The romantic angle aside, with Dahl in the role, The Daughter of the Regiment very nearly has the feel of a Shirley Temple movie.